Florida band performs at Rollinsville’s Stage Stop with Barrel House String Band for 4:20 Fest
By Jeffrey V. Smith
The Grass is Dead is growing again. The South Florida band has rearranged Grateful Dead songs in their own bluegrass style since forming in 1997 as a side project of the tribute band Crazy Fingers. With new members and a refreshed outlook, the act has reunited in 2015 and is touring more than ever. It performs at the Stage Stop in Rollinsville, April 20, as part of the 4:20 Fest, which also includes Manitou Springs-based Barrel House String Band.
The band is currently comprised of Billy Gilmore on banjo, mandolin, fiddle, Dobro, guitar and vocals; Bubba Newton on bass; Brent Hopper on mandolin, guitar and vocals; Jack Schueler on guitar, mandolin and vocals; and Brittany Reilly on bass, guitar and vocals.
All members have spent a lifetime making music including an extensive past with other popular Florida bands. Gilmore began playing banjo at age seven before learning guitar, mandolin, fiddle, Dobro, bass, and pedal steel. The vocalist, producer, arranger and multi instrumentalist, who is always looking to “spread a positive vibe,” has played in numerous projects and toured the world over the past 25 years. Newton, born and raised in Southern Maryland, moved to South Florida to make it his home in 1979. He played bass in various bands before forming “Crazy Fingers,” South Florida’s premier Grateful Dead tribute band in 1990.
Hopper, who has played music since he could walk, left home on his 16th birthday to tour and perform with groups in South Florida including Crazy Fingers, Almost Acoustic Band and Cosmic Revolution. He left Florida in 2005 to began writing music and touring with his wife in the Brittany Reilly Band. Schueler, Originally from the suburbs of Chicago, has been playing regionally out of South Florida since 2006. He was the front man and songwriter for the jamband Cypress which disbanded in 2003. Since then, he has focused on acoustic music while fronting The Short Straw Pickers.
Reilly, who has been performing with Hopper and Gilmore in her own nationally touring band since 2005, is the act’s newest addition. “I was, and am, first a fan of The Grass is Dead,” she said. At 18 years old and 1200 miles from home, she fell in love with “the boy holding the mandolin, and the music that poured out of all of them.” She has now been “welcomed onto their stage to add her own “colors and melodies.”
According to Reilly, The Grass is Dead—which has released three full-length albums including one offered by Grateful Dead Merchandising—has experienced numerous changes this year. After losing guitar player and founding member Corey Dwyer last spring, remaining members found “renewed energy in carrying on something sacred that was started back in ’98 with him.” Each of the members continued to play with different lineups, but the band’s other three original members have not played together under the name The Grass is Dead since 2005. The band has also embraced new members Schueler and Reilly, who calls the group “an ambitious lineup” since two members live in Florida, one in Colorado and two more in Ohio.
While the band’s name describes a lot, it couldn’t possibly describe everything, according to Reilly. “You can assume that bluegrass music and Grateful Dead songs will be fun. You can predict that your body may be forced to boogie. And you can guess that you’ll be listening to more music with fiddles and banjos in the days to follow,” she said. “But what you perhaps could not have foreseen, is the depth of emotion present in every word, every note. There are jokes, and laughter, and ‘pickin’ and grinnin’, as they say. You will dance and have a ball, but you will also find yourself in moments of spiritual clarity, you’ll feel empathy for the characters in the stories and then you will find yourself in some of these characters.”
The band’s musical style comes from having roots in bluegrass and because “we are all deadheads, of course,” Reilly said. “[The Grateful Dead] have been and continue to be a gateway into so many other styles of music that have formed us all as musicians. Their form and lack thereof has molded our playing, writing, and lifestyles in general.” The Grass is Dead will even be playing pre-parties outside at The Hyatt across the street from Soldier Field during all three days of the Grateful Dead’s final shows, and “enjoying being a part of as much of the circus as possible!”
As far as bluegrass goes, Reilly says she has listened to honky tonk as long as she can remember and Newton has “listened to it his whole life.” Hopper’s mom “had him listening to fiddles and country music at a very young age” while Schueler has roots in pickin’ guitars and writing music that pulls from bluegrass, old time and country. Gilmore, however, is responsible for the majority of the band’s bluegrass arrangements and is an “absolute genius, whether it be composition, mixing sound, or playing any of the eight or so instruments that he picks on almost flawlessly,” Reilly said.
The band’s reformation was too good not to take on the road. Reilly and Hopper started booking tours, “and we all jumped in head first.” Reilly explained, that with band members’ “geographical differences,” their sound will be “developed on the road.”
The Grass is Dead members are excited to come through Colorado. Gilmore, Hopper and Reilly have all played Colorado several times in her band. “We all love going out west, and the Denver/Boulder area has always been good to us,” Reilly said. “Very recently Bubba, relocated to Colorado and we have all been anxious to come out to his new home turf and play for all of our friends. We look forward to making it a regular stop. We can’t wait to have a ball with everyone.”
Watch for a live album from the act’s summer dates to “share this transformation with our friends and fans.”
To learn more about The Grass is Dead, visit grassisdead.com. The band performs at Quixote’s True Blue in Denver on April 17 and 19, Hodi’s Half Note in Fort Collins on April and Stage Stop in Rollinsville for 4:20 Fest on April 20. Visit stagestoprollinsville.com for more information about the 4:20 Fest.
Originally published in the April 2015 issue of the MMAC Monthly